Photo by Nebraska Unicameral
It is frustrating to note how the tide pushing the will of the people can turn with the influence of special interest money.The Auditor planned to look at 35 projects across the state. He was not able to audit 13 projects because those communities did not reply in a timely fashion. Of the remaining 22, errors and discrepancies were found in 19. The most common abuses were “expenditures could not be traced to supporting documents” and “Redevelopment plans did not include required elements, or the project was not in conformity with the development plan and was not properly approved by the governing body.”
We started this legislative session with an audit on Tax Increment Financing completed by State Auditor Charlie Janssen in hand.
The Auditor’s recommendation included this statement:
“Keeping the interests of the Nebraska taxpayer in mind, however, it appears that the Community Development Law and supplementary statutes that authorize TIF projects may merit legislative review to safeguard taxpayer’s dollars and to ensure that publicly funded redevelopments are carried out properly.”
I introduced TIF legislation to the Urban Affairs Committee with expectations that:
1) the Auditor’s report reflecting the will of the people would be followed and we would put state oversight over TIF,
2) we would clearly define TIF’s constitutional purpose of urban renewal, and
3) reaffirm that tax dollars used in TIF would be used correctly on public infrastructure costs.
We keep the true purpose of property taxes in mind -- to ensure we as members of a community equally share in funding public safety, schools, and common infrastructure.
Those who profit from TIF made sure those bills never left the committee.
Instead, as the session came near its close, what came to the floor for debate was legislation to greatly expand TIF (LB 496) by including the construction cost of private housing projects in the redevelopment expenses.
It was defeated during filibuster. The fact that this legislation had a very good chance to pass is an outrage against good government and a strong statement on the power that special interests have on politicians through campaign donations.
Three of the provisions of this bill (LB 512) are:
1) Adopt the Student Online Personal Information Act; it would prohibit technology companies who are invited into or contracted with schools from using student data for targeted advertising, or creating student profiles for non-educational purposes.
2) Mandate that a licensed lifeguard be present during swimming team or physical education swimming classes.
3) Stop a trend by school boards to reward employees with very large voluntary retirement bonuses and paying for them by increasing property tax levies above the 1.05 levy limit.
Like most programs, this policy started with good intent. Voluntary retirement bonuses were meant as a management tool to allow a school district to downsize its staff when needed or to remove an ineffective employee without violating union contracts. It turned into a union contract negotiating tool and in some cases, it was just plain establishment cronyism.
For example, in Millard, administrators were given $150,000 bonuses and certified staff were receiving $100,000 to retire between the ages of 55 and 62.
In Fremont, an administrator received $208,000.
In Omaha, a retiring superintendent was given $1 million.
We set a maximum of $35,000 and banned the practice of including the voluntary retirement bonus in union contracts.
Lincoln County school districts have used the management tool correctly; the abuse was concentrated in eastern Nebraska, but it was spreading.
The remainder of this week, we will be concentrating on upholding the governor’s budget vetoes.
The state’s tax collections are still on a downward trend. April’s numbers were $55 million short. We have no choice but to cut expenditures.
I have always believed that during downturns in our economy, it is the time for government to cut fat and waste from their budgets and for politicians to look at what is and isn’t necessary in government.
We are in that process today. I will support the governor’s vetoes and the resulting final budget.
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